by Christian P.
Early Saturday morning, September 16, Education Austin, the union for certified and classified employees of Austin Independent School District, hosted a town hall to address the district’s failures in special education. Austin ISD has undeniably struggled to meet special education requirements in the past, allowing a backlog of thousands of student evaluations to build up. This is why the new progressive school board majority, elected less than a year ago, has moved to fix the situation. A district-wide raise for teachers and other staff resulted in hundreds of empty positions being filled, and the special education backlog has already dropped by half.
Despite these major improvements, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) moved to place a monitor over AISD, citing the special ed programs. The reality is that previous administrations have created problems in our district, but the growing voices of our teachers and community through the school board and the teacher’s union have already proved that they are much better equipped to address flaws in our schools than an outside state agency with a track record like TEA’s. Sensing the threat to our public schools and acting in defense of working people, Austin DSA’s new Schools For All campaign stepped up to boost this meeting with our community’s educators.
After two weekends of door-to-door canvassing from Austin DSA, showing up to the meeting were education workers, parents, and community members, with at least a fourth of attendees being concerned and invested members of Austin DSA. The event started off with the frustrated story of an AFT leader from Houston, giving all a good idea of what could be expected from a TEA conservatorship. After succeeding in reform by all of TEAs own metrics, Houston ISD’s democratically elected school board was removed and TEA advanced its authoritarian vision for public schools by appointing an unaccountable superintendent: Mike Miles.
Miles’ history is spotty at best, resigning from Dallas ISD without increasing test scores (they actually lowered in some cases) and with many veteran teachers and principals leaving the district. This is the same Mike Miles who recently gained internet attention after starring in a musical about his life at a HISD teacher training.
HISD has since seen more than 2,300 layoffs, teachers forced into teaching a scripted curriculum, and libraries turned into detention centers. It is a grave look into the future that TEA wants for Texas children. Importantly, the union leader also noted that TEA’s idea of special education in Houston has meant incorporating those with special needs into regular classes, without the accommodations that they need. This makes it clear: TEA does not have a plan for special education in Austin, they just want to tear down one of the last public goods we have left.
This, unfortunately, isn’t a new story. By degrading the quality of our public education, private schools become more attractive in comparison. Schools are just the latest public good neoliberals are seeking to privatize and deregulate, and they’re nearly the last. Republicans in Texas have been trying to gut public school funding for decades, through school vouchers, charter schools, and school closures in working class neighborhoods. Their recent attacks on public education seek to further degrade the quality of our already underfunded schools, hoping that desperate Texans will be deceived into supporting a two-tiered charter school system, where rich families can afford an expensive education, and working class children are forced into under-resourced classrooms.
The union meeting showed that well-informed community members can confidently support their local teachers and stand strong against TEA’s heavy handed takeover. Moving into breakout rooms, groups were able to discuss what real solutions to the special education crisis could look like. Special education teachers spoke about the difficulties they faced in classrooms, often doing the jobs of what properly resourced schools would have three people doing. Incredibly engaged parents of special needs children spoke out about how the state legislature continued to fail to increase funding to important programs, and how they trusted teachers while they dealt with an inept administration. Often a sentiment arose of a need for regime change, believing that TEA couldn’t do any worse than AISD is doing now. Union members did a great job revealing just how much worse it could get, while demonstrating that the real solutions reside with those closest to the situation: with the workers and the teachers. The meeting ended enthusiastically with Education Austin calling for a coalition to defend public schools against TEA takeover and with a big thanks to Austin DSA for helping to mobilize around the cause.
We were just following our principles. As socialists, we know that public education is the lifeblood of democracy and a crucial institution of the working class. A quality education used to be available only to the wealthy, and it is the wealthy that now seek to bring about a return to that sort of society.
Austin DSA’s work in the Schools for All campaign will engage the community with an alternative to neoliberal austerity: democratic worker-led answers, and community investment. Going beyond the purely defensive, the campaign is an opportunity to say, yes there are problems in schools, but privatization is not and has never been the answer. The campaign will work with the community, Education Austin, and our pro-union school board to gather a list of demands and press forward with real improvements to our schools. High-quality education is a human right, and the way to achieve it is not via top down decision-making and privatization, but through well-resourced school districts that can hire more teachers for our overcrowded classrooms, provide more resources for students, and make teaching a viable long term career for professionals by reducing their work hours and paying them a livable wage.
Public schools are a bastion of the working class. They’ve suffered many blows in recent years, but Austinites should embrace improving them with worker-led problem solving and democratic community-led action. This campaign stands to bring parents, teachers, students and community members into solidarity by communicating with our neighbors, supporting the work of the union coalition, agitating in our Campus Advisory Councils, and pressuring the AISD Board of Trustees. As long as the Texas government continues to make draconian assaults on our schools, the campaign will organize against them. As long as working-class families aren’t getting the schools they deserve, this campaign will push forward with them.
If public education is something that’s important to you, there’s never been a better time to get involved. The Schools for All Campaign welcomes you to join us in building the schools Austinites deserve.
On Saturday, October 7th, the Schools for All campaign will join alongside other Texans against vouchers at the Boot Vouchers Rally, talking to community members about how they can get involved. We’ll need all hands on deck this October as we phone bank lawmakers and plan other pressure tactics. After the special session of the Texas Legislature, we’ll focus on building momentum for local demands!